Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 23, 2013 (Proper 7, Year C)

Most of what I know about demons I learned from movies. To be specific movie trailers since I’m not a big fan of slasher flicks. The Exorcist, Poltergeist, those Chucky movies. I’ve never understood why people willingly fork over good money just for the privilege of having the bejesus scared out them. But Hollywood loves demons almost as much as it loves vampires. The difference being that demons tend to rear their ugly heads in the Bible. But vampires? Not so so much.

Jesus is always casting out demons with a touch, a word, a glance. Most of us probably have trouble relating to this aspect of Jesus’ ministry and so we tend to gloss over or rationalize these exorcisms. Was it really a demon or was it some undiagnosed mental illness? And what do we mean by demon anyway — is it a malevolent paranormal being or an unclean spirit of some sort or just a metaphor for evil?

In some ways it doesn’t matter as long as we redefine the word “demon.” Don’t think about hideous green creatures or slimy serpentine satanic beings. In other words, leave the special effects aside. A demon is really anything that keeps us from wholeness. They serve as obstacles to being the people God intends us to be. So whatever they may or may not look like, demons destroy the wholeness of our humanity. They prevent us from experiencing the fullness of the human condition by distorting our relationships with God, with one another, and with ourselves.

This was certainly the case with the Gerasene demoniac, as he’s known, that Jesus encounters in this morning’s gospel. We meet a wild, unkempt, demon-possessed man in a story that is both striking and bizarre. He’s been tormented for years and has terrorized the local population with his erratic behavior. His demons are so powerful that not even chains can restrain him. And we also learn that he lives out by the tombs — in other words not among the living. He is in effect a dead man walking; not fully human.

We may not feel much solidarity with this man but we actually have much more in common than we think. Because no matter how we label them, demons are alive and well and thriving in our world. The most prevalent demons relate to addiction — drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, the internet; a penchant for abusive behavior or an unhealthy hunger for money or status. If you dig deep enough we all have either personal experience or we’ve dealt with addiction issues first-hand through close friends or family members. These demons are intense because they hold power over us and can quite literally possess us. I’ve heard alcoholics tell me after falling off the wagon, “I let my demons get the best of me.” To someone in the throes of addiction, these demons aren’t imaginary but real, tangible, and destructive.

The situation of the demoniac Jesus meets is strikingly similar to those among us who battle such demons. He is isolated from the community, estranged from his family, engaged in self-destructive behavior, out of control, trapped in an unhealthy situation, and powerless to help himself. Sound familiar? Those are all the signs we would associate with someone struggling with addiction.

There’s been an Alcoholics Anonymous group in every church I’ve ever served — it’s a ministry the church has always embraced. Here at St. John’s there’s a large one that takes place every Saturday night. I still remember the evening before my very first Sunday here; I was looking out the kitchen window of the rectory and saw a ton of cars heading up the driveway. I had a momentary panic — was I supposed to be at some church event they forgot to tell me about? I even went up the hill to ask what was going on.

What many people don’t realize is that AA was co-founded by an Episcopal priest. Sam Shoemaker was a priest in New York City when he met Bill Wilson and together they put together the program we now know. Shoemaker was the group’s spiritual guide and was instrumental in putting together those famous 12-Steps.

I have to think this particular gospel story was on Shoemaker’s heart when he came up with the steps that have led to the transformation of so many lives. All you have to do is look at the first three steps to see the parallel.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The Gerasene demoniac was indeed powerless and his life had become unmanageable. It took a power greater than himself to restore him to sanity. Ultimately, he turned his life over to God’s care and was made whole.

Shoemaker, who was a renowned preacher and prolific author, wrote a well-known poem titled “I Stand at the Door.” He uses the door as the symbol for entering into relationship with God and it’s an image he felt defined his ministry. He saw himself as one who stood by the door to welcome others into this transformative relationship.

It’s a fairly long poem and I encourage you to look it up but I wanted to at least read portions of the first and last stanzas:

I stand by the door
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…
So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door, the door to God.
The most important thing anyone can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And to put it on the latch the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it, live because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find God…
So I stay near the door.

I love this imagery because Jesus spoke about being the door itself. Or at least the gate to the sheepfold — which is a door. In John’s gospel he says, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And he also tells us in Matthew’s gospel, “Knock and the door will be opened unto you.

It is entering this door of relationship with Jesus Christ that makes us whole. This is what Shoemaker was pointing us toward and it’s what Jesus calls us into. We are all broken; we are all possessed by demons of one sort or another; we are all in need of healing. There’s no magic pill that wipes away our human frailty or our deep insecurities or the hurt that we have endured over the years. But Jesus is the door itself, flung wide open in welcome. Beckoning us in; inviting us into ever-deepening relationship with the God who sets us free.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013

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